Just like Michael Bauer was recently, SF Mag's Josh Sens isn't feeling great about his star rating system, and he pens a lengthy piece in the mag's Food Issue "cursing" the stars and calling them "crude instruments ill suited to the function we assign them, blunt tools that dull the nuance of opinion, battering subjective musings into hardened 'facts.'"
Ruth Reichl has called star ratings "an insult to the reader," but many newspaper and food magazine editors agree that readers seem to demand them despite the fact that alt-weekly critics like LA Weekly's Jonathan Gold thrive without them. Chef Christopher Kostow, who recently became only the second American-born chef after Thomas Keller to earn three stars from Michelin for his Restaurant at Meadowood in the Napa Valley, says he thinks star systems create healthy competition, and ultimately more ambitious food. "The guest wins," Kostow says. “Look at cities where there is an absence of viable food criticism and ratings systems, and you will inevitably see a place devoid of great, progressive food."
Sens says he's not proud of the fact that the majority of restaurants he's reviewed in the magazine have notched two stars, and only a rare few have received just one. And it bugs him the power these rating tend to have in a restaurant's success or failure. "[It's] a clear imbalance in our food-reviewing culture, in which the glare of symbols outshines the subtleties of the written word." Perhaps if places like SF Mag and the Chron followed a guideline similar to Michelin's in which one star actually means something readers would be less inclined to balk at some side-by-side comparisons.
Knowing how much power his star ratings have in S.F., we ourselves have been baffled by all of Michael Bauer's three-star reviews for pizza restaurants, when a place like Saison to which SF Mag just awarded their Best Chef in the city prize also has three stars. Bauer defends the practice by saying that, even though he dislikes having to give stars, the ratings have to be read in the context of price and category of food. In other words, he's only comparing pizza places to other pizza places, and not to fine dining restaurants, and he expects readers to be able to do the same. Why no four-star pizza places, then?
Similarly, the New York Times's Sam Sifton caused some controversy last fall by awarding four stars to Del Posto, since it didn't seem in line with the paper's other, more effete four-star restaurants. And at our own mothership, New York Magazine, restaurant critic Adam Platt uses a five-star system in which four- and five-star reviews are much more the exception than the rule, and most restaurants hover between one and three.
Perhaps places like New York and S.F. should just be glad we have four-star restaurants, and critics who wield any power at all. Eater Seattle recently took on this topic because of the complete absence of four-star restaurants, and the seemingly blasé manner with which the Seattle Times awards two stars willy-nilly. They admit that maybe a four-star restaurant doesn't exist up there because diners in the area "don't embrace unabashed 'fine dining' the way New Yorkers and San Franciscans might." Sad, right?
In the end, it probably is just human nature to crave simple grading systems. It might devalue the words of the critic, but sometimes we don't have time to read all those words. We skip to the end. We count the stars. We get on with our day. For the chefs, publicists, restaurateurs, and more sensitive critics, the difference of half a star is legion. For the rest of us, not so much. But then again, we don't have much money riding on it.